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10 ACT Essay Tips You Need To Know

The following is a list of tips for the ACT Essay section.

Be sure that you fill up three to four pages of the exam booklet.

Essays less than three pages will lose points, and those with four pages score the highest.

Because the graders don’t have very much time to score your essay—three to four minutes per essay at most—they rely on relatively superficial criteria to assign your score. One of these criteria is length. We have found that essays three to four pages in length earn the most points, whereas those of shorter lengths tend to lose points. Unable to read the entire essay in full, graders assume that students who wrote longer essays had more to say, and wrote better arguments, and those that wrote less weren’t able to develop their points.

If you have particularly small handwriting, you’ll want to write bigger than you normally do, so that you don’t have to come up with a lot of extra content in order to fill these pages in. And you should make sure that you always write clearly, even if you have to speed along in order to write four pages. If graders can’t read your writing (a big pet peeve of theirs), then they will dock your points.

Memorize the prompt ahead of time.

The prompt will always be the same, so if you know it, you can skip reading it and save more time for writing.

The prompt on the ACT Essay will always be the same. If you take the time to learn it before exam day, then you won’t have to read it on the day of the exam, which will save you a minute or two you can then devote to outlining or writing your essay. If you know the prompt’s requirements by heart, you’ll also be less likely to forget to include any of the required of the essay.

Outline before you start writing.

Have a plan so that you don’t develop writers block or forget to include necessary information.

The ACT Essay requires that you write five paragraphs—an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The introduction should include your thesis, and each body paragraph should include a point in support of your thesis, along with three specific examples. The examples can come from anywhere, including personal anecdotes, or those of your friends and family, statistics, things you’ve read in the newspaper or seen on TV, et cetera. The conclusion need only be a couple sentences, wherein you restate your thesis.

Have all of the basic components of these paragraphs outlined before you start writing. There’s nothing worse than getting halfway through your essay and developing writer’s block, not knowing what to write next. Then, you waste precious minutes trying to get back on track. With an outline, you always know what you need to write next, and you also ensure that you include everything that the exam graders are looking for.

Don’t be afraid to make stuff up.

The exam graders won’t care if you make up examples, so long as they’re realistic.

For every point you make about the perspectives supplied for the ACT Essay, you’ll need to come up with a few specific examples. If you’re stretching to come up with examples from real life, don’t be afraid to make something up. This is not a test of the veracity of your information, and you don’t need to offer citations. If you make up a study or a newspaper article in support of your claim, that’s fine, so long as it’s relatively realistic. The ACT Essay graders just want to see that you’re able to build an argument, not test your ability to come up with real-life examples without the benefit of research.

Use elevated vocabulary whenever possible.

Two to three elevated vocabulary words per paragraph will get you a higher score.

Your English teachers have probably (rightly) admonished you for using elevated vocabulary words unnecessarily. Advanced vocabulary should be used only when it is the most precise way of expressing your thoughts. Otherwise, it’s best to use simpler words, which more people will understand.

However, because the graders will only have a few minutes to look at your ACT Essay, one of the criteria they will use to score it is your use of elevated vocabulary. So, be sure to show off, and sprinkle two to three advanced vocabulary words per paragraph. Any less, and there’s a chance that the graders won’t see the words.

Don’t be so critical.

You don’t have to criticize any of the perspectives to get a top score.

On the ACT Essay, you’ll be required to discuss three different perspectives on an issue, as well as your perspective. Some students feel compelled to attack the other perspectives, pointing out flaws in the reasoning. However, critiquing the perspectives can be difficult and time-consuming, because the perspectives are always well thought-out. And the good news is, the graders don’t expect you to attack the other perspectives. Simply point out, when you defend your perspective, why it is the best. For the others, it’s fine to just provide some of examples of their strengths, without endorsing the view wholesale.

You’re also allowed to come up with your own, fourth, perspective. However, I urge against doing this. Writing an entirely new perspective takes up a lot of time and brainpower, and still leaves you with the work of elaborating upon the three other perspectives. So, even if one of the three perspectives doesn’t accurately capture your view on the issue, choose the one that you agree with most, and defend that as your view. This isn’t a test of your beliefs—this is a test of your ability to write an argument, and you should make your job as easy as possible, so that you don’t create lots of extra work for yourself and run out of time.

Be sure to write five full paragraphs.

If you run out of time, skimp on the third body paragraph and write your conclusion.

If you’re working against the clock, and are quickly running out of time to write a conclusion, then skimp on your third paragraph, so that you have time to write a few sentences wrapping up the essay. Because the graders only have a few minutes to score your essay, they won’t be reading it in full. Instead, they’ll be looking to see that you’ve met certain benchmarks, one of which is writing five full paragraphs. You’ll get a higher score writing a conclusion than you will writing an excellent third paragraph and skipping the conclusion. Ideally, if you’ve outlined ahead of time and kept your writing on track, you won’t have to make this choice.

Use transitions between each idea and paragraph.

Include the proper conjunctions between each idea and paragraph.

Know your conjunctions—words and phrases that describe the relationship between words—and use them throughout your essay, to effect seamless transitions between ideas and paragraphs. At no point in your essay should you move abruptly from one idea to another without including the appropriate transition. Effective transitions are one of the elements that the graders will be looking for as they score your essay.

Don’t write out large parts of the perspectives verbatim.

Copying text from the prompt makes it look like you didn’t have anything of your own to say.

There’s a very good chance that at some point in the writing of your essay, you’ll need to quote the prompt, or one of the perspectives you’re discussing. This is fine. Just keep the quotation to a minimum and be sure to include quotation marks and a line citation. Otherwise, whenever you can, restate or summarize ideas, rather than quoting them verbatim. If you include too much text from the prompt in your essay, the graders will dock points, assuming you didn’t have enough of your own to say. Try to limit your quotations to no more than once per body paragraph, and no more than two lines per paragraph, at maximum.

Be sure to proofread your work.

Check for errors in spelling and grammar—you’ll save yourself some points.

The ACT Essay graders won’t just be analyzing your argument. They’ll also be grading the quality of your writing, which includes your spelling and grammar. You’re likely to have made a few mistakes throughout the course of writing the essay, so, ideally, you should go back at the end to check for, and correct, mistakes. Mistakes to look out for include incorrect spelling, grammar errors, and punctuation goofs. Even just a couple could cost you a point off your writing score.

If you do spot errors, there’s no need to erase them or to scribble them out. The best way to correct yourself is to write a clean, simple line through the mistake, and then include the correction above with a carrot (^), or write the correction next to your mistake. Trying to erase or scribble makes your exam booklet look sloppy, which could cost you points.

Clay Cooper

Clay has scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT, ACT, PSAT, LSAT, and ISEE, among other standardized tests. He has taught and developed courses for high school, college, and graduate-level standardized tests extensively around the country, and specializes in the field. He has studied law at Georgetown University Law Center and worked in the legal field as well, for attorneys, judges, and the Tennessee Attorney General.